I will break it down this way: odor molecules make their way high into your nose, stimulating olfactory sensory neurons and sending electrical impulses directly to your limbic system — that’s the distinction between smell and all other senses. All the rest interact with the thalamus, the brain’s sensory relay, but smell attaches to the limbic system: the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the amygdala, systems that elicit fear, instinct, vigor. These are primalities that we tend to lose in a routine society until some event comes and unearths how we felt as a child again, and we realize how wrong we have been living. Smell.
There’s a distinct smell within an Asian market. It hits me as soon as I enter, all at once, paralyzing, and I can almost taste it, which makes sense— because taste is really just smell, and food molecules make their way retronasally into your nose. Try it: Pinch your nose while eating, and see how much less you can taste. But I remember what I am here for again and I ask the butcher: “磅牛腩，谢谢。” A pound of beef brisket for a beef brisket and white radish soup. It’s Mid-Autumn festival, and I want to cook an authentic Chinese dinner with mooncakes (which one of my editors affectionately calls moon pies), pork ribs, stir-fried bok choy and no crabs, because nowhere in Ann Arbor are there hardshell crabs, despite their importance to this holiday.
I go down the shopping list: Píxiàn broad bean paste, pork heart, Sìchuān peppercorns and whatever else arrests the eye. Bell pepper to pair with the pork heart and jujube for the table. The Chinese cook in this way; recipes work in fluidity, adjusting to the tastes of the chef. There is no quantitative method, no teaspoons or pounds or minutes — just a splash of rice vinegar here, add enough salt after the meat has browned and so on. Americans try to find discipline in their meals, clinging to a golden, city-upon-a-hill visage of cuisine as it should be, eternal, holding on to the dying breaths of empire.
Now I cook like my dad, who tells me he learned how to cook by “figuring out what he liked and making food until he got there.” Maybe that’s all Chinese cuisine is: a distinctive set of flavor profiles and all the ingredients needed to get there. This is one way of looking at it — but Miranda Brown, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, has another. She goes into a Dim Sum restaurant and sees custard tarts, curry noodles; she sees pourover coffee in Beijing and borscht in Shanghai and beef and potatoes and tomatoes and everything, everywhere, the whole world’s cuisine in this country. There are flavors here that we would mock a white man for thinking is Chinese, until it is.
“My view is that foods change,” she said. “If you take a Shanghainese recipe and move it to Hong Kong, it tastes different. They put oyster sauce in places that I wouldn’t expect oyster sauce to be if I were in Shanghai.”
Is it sacrilegious to say Panda Express is Chinese food? Authenticity is dead — long live postmodernism. True, Panda Express does not taste like the Chinese food I grew up with. It suits a Western palate — it’s sweet and sour and saucy in the way that Americans have come to love, in the ways the Chinese don’t recognize, but food is adaptable in this way. It isn’t like the rest of culture, a Bach or a Chopin or a Mozart, which pretends itself to be immutable. Food is a product of us and where we are, shifting to the needs of a geospatially and temporally located people.
It is also true that in this transmutation, we lose parts of ourselves that we hold dear. This is why so many of the Chinese are angry at the Panda-Expressian meaning of Chinese food. It’s why many of us, despite growing up in America and breathing in America and loving in America and crying in America and having a part of ourselves inevitably shaped, changed by America, still see a country that is willing to let us go when we aren’t useful enough.
And, like Panda Express, we become trapped in this limbo, feeling like we have to constantly justify ourselves just to exist. It’s why we feel like a failure going to the University of Michigan rather than some Ivy League. It’s why we cry in grocery stores. It’s why there are some things that we cannot ever tell our parents, because we are American in the ways they have always wanted to be, in ways they don’t understand. I don’t know how to deal with this grief. I think that Panda Express, even if I don’t want it to, tastes good.
Because of this, I cook emotionally, like a painter filling in all the details after everyone else has gone to bed. There comes a certain point when I am cooking, I realize, that I begin to let go of much of the outside world. It is of my opinion that a good cook comes to rely on their senses in this way — when recipes and words and really, much of modern language, stops being semantic. When all you have to communicate with is how firm the tofu feels, the salinity of your hóngshāoròu, the way a stir-fry smells.
When I taste a soup and know it needs just a dash more of white pepper and maybe more salt, my intuitions are not spellbound to some higher cultural order, but to my tastes and my sensibilities. I set the water on the stove: icy, cool, cold, lukewarm, tepid, hot, balmy, blistering, boiling, until I lose my reflection in the water, until I am vulnerable, and into the soup pot goes the chopped up pieces of myself. Slowly I begin to stop thinking about acidity and spice and instead, into the soup pot goes all the ways that I have been loved and cared for and taught how to exist.
Chinese food falls apart and recombines itself like this, merging its cosmopolitan psychosis together until it is reborn, and if you are someone who has continuously had to mend the broken pieces of yourself back together, you know that no one is really ever that proud of you for being okay: Congratulations, this is how normal people are, how normal people exist, all the time. It is never the fault of your friends, because they are perfectly kind and empathetic people, it is just that vision and hearing and language all necessitate going through the thalamus, and in that, an unnameable understanding is lost; in that you lose yourself to the world.
I cook for others because there is something that 总是 lost in the translation of literature — there is cultural context lost for things like music or theatre or fine art or architecture. But in food there doesn’t need to be, we taste what we taste. In food there is only tremendous care; I am finely mincing the ginger and I am scumming the blood out of the broth: I am leading a child to be born, I am loving, I am leading those dishes to exist in this broken world. And you eat, and in a way you are holding my hand, and in a way you have now always seen me.
And, in an effort to remember again, the last dish I cook is tomato stir-fried egg, perhaps the first dish that my father taught me how to make. I haven’t had tomato stir-fried egg in a long time, despite knowing the recipe like the back of my hand. My parents never make it for me anymore — I’m in college, so it feels too unceremonious to cook now for the short time we still have each other, but maybe I’ll ask them to make it for me again before they die. Maybe it’ll escape my mind, in the way that those things tend to, and I’ll wish I did.
I remember my dad first began teaching the dish to me. I was an inquisitive child, and I would always stand watching in the kitchen before he one day pulled me in. He would say, in this slow voice, “First, you have to scramble the eggs and set them aside. Then add the tomatoes in the pan, let the tomatoes break apart and if it needs more liquid, pour in chicken broth. But the tomatoes, by themselves, don’t taste ‘tomato’ enough — there’s a secret.”
Heinz ketchup. The secret is Heinz ketchup. I asked my dad about its inclusion recently and he said no, they never did it that way when he grew up in Běijīng — we only do that here. I think I’ve been too harsh on him, and maybe he is also American in ways that I do not recognize, in a way I desperately crave.
I cook the dish now, and I feel the ghost of my childhood creeping up into the kitchen, just like I always did. He looks up at me, bent over the stove with my bleach-blonde hair, and something in him is frightened, but curious. He always has questions, the bugger, like Why? Does it hurt to bleach your hair? How was your first kiss? Have you had it? Are you happy? Do you like your friends? Are you happy? Are you ever going to feel like you’ve found home in America? Are you ever going to be happy?
And before I can answer, the door opens, ajar, and the first guests have arrived.
The dishes are set, and once everyone arrives, the designated photographer, a curious man from Brooklyn, treats the affair like an art critique. “First, everyone list what you taste, what you see. No evaluations, no ‘this is good,’ just plain sensory details.”
“Spicy,” someone chimes in.
“A lot of warm colors.”
“Now,” he states, “you can ask the artist questions.”
Someone says, “What do you taste?”
“I don’t taste much,” I say. It’s not particularly spicy, less than I would have liked, and I don’t taste history or cultural heritage. I don’t taste something like the cultural revolution. I don’t taste the names of the presidents, I don’t taste 64, I don’t taste the crowds at the 2008 Olympics or the streets I walked to school on everyday or the poems I had to memorize. I taste myself, on an airplane, before anything bad ever happened to me, looking out into the deepest, darkest blue that I will ever see. I stare, and nothing bad has ever happened to me, and I stare.
Statement Correspondent and Web Editor Darrin Zhou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.